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Secrecy for the Sake of Secrecy

Ever since the CIA was established in 1947, the annual amount of money spent on intelligence has been treated as a closely guarded secret. In recent years, a small army of liberal advocacy groups has been calling for disclosure. Their cause gained momentum when the 9/11 Commission threw its weight behind it. Just this past week, Congress passed a law, which President Bush has already signed, that would compel such disclosure.

But the House of Representatives is now busy undoing its own work, and the final outcome is far from clear. Bush, for his part, signed the bill under duress. His administration, remaining faithful to its reputation (ill-deserved, as I have argued here) as the “most secretive” in American history, has consistently argued against disclosure.

The administration’s most recent statement came in February:

Disclosure, including disclosure to the nation’s enemies and adversaries in a time of war, of the amounts requested by the President and provided by the Congress for the conduct of the nation’s intelligence activities would provide no meaningful information to the general American public, but would provide significant intelligence to America’s adversaries and could cause damage to the national-security interests of the United States.

Does this position make sense, and does it constitute the best argument against disclosure? Any honest attempt to answer must come in two parts. What damage might be done to American security by revealing the number; and would that number really provide “no meaningful information” to the American public?

Certainly, during the period of the cold war when we were facing a single rival superpower, the total amount the U.S. spent gathering intelligence could have been of some value to Moscow. If the total budget showed a significant up-tick from year to year, that might have revealed something important—the inauguration, say, of a major new satellite system for listening in on Soviet military communications.

Even if that information would have been of limited value to the Kremlin, there was a plausible case for preventing the USSR from gaining even marginal advantages in the high-stakes competition of the era.

But the Soviet Union is no more. Now we face rising but still second-rate powers like China, a range of much smaller rogue regimes like Iran and North Korea, and terrorist bands worldwide like al Qaeda. Could trends in the total U.S. intelligence budget be of any value to any of them? It is hard to see how.

What about the American public? Would it benefit from knowing whether, in a given year, more or less is being spent? As it happens, during the Clinton era, in response to a Freedom of Information Act request by the Federation of American Scientists, the intelligence budget was disclosed for two successive years. In 1997, the sum was 26.6 billion; a year later, it had increased fractionally to $26.7 billion.

In these two numbers alone, we see a powerful case for revealing the budget. I do not know whether the two numbers were adjusted for inflation, but if they were, what they show is an intelligence budget that was flat. If they were not, they show an intelligence budget in decline. A look at the entire intelligence-budget trend-line for the Clinton presidency might well offer a valuable instrument in assessing just how we fell victim to the worst intelligence failure in American history on September 11, 2001. Surely that would qualify as “meaningful information.”

Still, this does not settle the matter. There is an additional argument for secrecy that the Bush administration did not make but should have.

The fact of the matter is that we have been far too open about intelligence matters in recent years. In World War II and throughout much of the cold war it was rightly taken for granted that “loose lips sink ships.” Today, by way of contrast, highly sensitive secrets, including those regarding ongoing operations against al Qaeda, are leaked to the press with regularity. Our culture seems to have forgotten that too much openness can get us all—or many of us—killed.

Good and completely rational arguments exist for disclosing the intelligence budget. But the larger fact is that an unfortunate and damaging climate of openness has come to surround things that should be wrapped in darkness. For that reason alone, if for no other, disclosing the total intelligence budget would be a step in the wrong direction.


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